Wednesday, August 29, 2007


There is an interesting article in the New York Times about the rapid industrialization of China and the (dire) effects it is having on the environment. It leaves me pondering a couple of questions that sound stupid. How much should I care? What should I do? These questions are difficult for me as someone who cares about conservation.

I sense that I should care a lot about what happens in China. Here are some very basic thoughts about China. Clearly I want the environment in China to be pristine. I don't want pollution. I cynically believe that maybe even the majority of Chinese will be losers from this rapid industrialization. Their health problems will overshadow any economic gains that might eventually trickle down to them. I also believe that our current and China's growing usage of fossil fuels is bad, and not sustainable. At the same time I know that China has a bad record with human rights, and that workers often have very bad conditions. I don't know much about biodiversity and species loss in China. China is a big country (the fourth largest). If their environment is bad, it is bad for the world.

I am just not sure what we can do, observing this. I had an interesting conversation with a friend of mine, a Kenyan conservationist, over the use of DDT. I had read in Tierney Lab in the New York Times an argument towards the use of DDT in Kenya, because the threat of malaria there is more important to Tierney than the environmental threats caused by the usage of DDT. This made me think. But my friend told me that in western countries, we developed our economic system rapidly and devastated the environment. They have the chance in Kenya to develop economically without replicating our mistakes. And environmentalism is a marginal movement in Kenya (like in many western countries) so they really need the support of us Westerners. On the other hand, if the people of Kenya overwhelmingly want to devastate their environment, one could argue that it is imperialist of me to insist on "sustainability," especially while the US emits carbon at such high rates and destroys its own resources.

My value for the environment mostly trumps my desire not to be imperialist, but to what extent? At some point the situation in China will get bad enough that they will have to change. How much can efforts, especially from abroad, do to hasten changes before necessity enforces them? I don't actually have a plan to make a difference in China, so I suppose this is mostly an academic posting, but I think about these issues. And maybe if I could be convinced that my efforts could make a difference I would change my plans.

I wonder about this question a little bit in terms of the climate change issue vs. peak oil. If we have passed the period of peak oil production, maybe climate change will be halted. The problem comes if we have to tackle climate change while there is plenty of oil left.
If we could really make the polluter pay, and include costs of pollution in the price of commodities, these issues could be reframed.

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